Depolarising the body

‘It is a pleasure to perform on this stage which gives us a sense of freedom, despite everything happening in this world.’ My most remarkable moment at Spring Forward 2022 occurred when Taiwanese choreographer Wang Yeu-kwn came on stage, after his duet Beings, to utter this message on a microphone. Don’t get me wrong. I am not neglecting the 24 performances by the Twenty22 artists – but those unexpected words thoughtfully shifted the way I receive dance, both as a dance writer and as an audience member. In these not-so-roaring-20s times, marked by fast-paced journalism, plastic debates, conflict and concerns around the reliability of the facts we access, what is the role of the body as a medium to depolarise speech?

In a recent collaborative study between Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford the scenario sounds quite optimistic. Predictions based on the current news agenda point towards the hope that ‘this could be the year when journalism takes a breath, focuses on the basics, and comes back stronger’ after years of increasingly polarised debates around politics, identity and culture. As a primary way of communication, dance has – perhaps more than ever – the power to use movement to democratise access to information. And happily, some of selected pieces this year brought this mission on stage during the four-day festival, bringing viewpoints that mirror how the world is spinning – and how we spin along.

Depolarising speech can (and should) start with depolarising the body. By expanding the terminology of ‘contemporary dances’ (to follow choreographer Lia Rodrigues’s use of the plural) some performances combined different dance styles, offering new points of view to translate reality. The urban dance aesthetics of Gaston Core’s solo The Very Last Northern White Rhino was the right choice to stress the necessity to keep going and find joy amid mass extinctions; while Study 4, Fandango and Other Cadences by Aina Alegre recycles the traditional Basque folk dance to leave us wondering how cultural identity, tradition and legacy are also elements of globalisation. Disappointingly, few of the performances included in the 2022 programming did not come with fresh, plural perspectives of the body as a source of information or activism. Movers Platform #3 curated by Hiroki Umeda and 1°C by Q dance company, were successions of entertaining and highly demanding movement, but little else.

Movement can also be a more accessible way to engage audiences with complex issues in these times where many people turned away from news and its sensationalist tabloids and the spread of fake news. Never Twenty One by Compagnie Vivons combined different textures of text, spoken word and remarkable lighting in order to brutally grab our attention about the disturbing topic of gun violence. The climate crisis was also part of the programme through Treatment of Remembering by the POCKETART collective, giving us a melancholic longing for a natural world that is no longer here.

After four intensive days of performances, when retaining details turned out to be a challenging task, I realised how similarly we consume both dance and information. In each case, questions emerge: how permeable are they both? What stays with us, and what is easily disposable? Choreography turns out to be a valuable act of social activism, a window to see the world through other bodily experiences. And for this reason, it is never too much to remember John Ashford’s eloquent words on Why Dance? – ‘Because dance brings latest news from the front line, ideas in motion, letting you discover that yes, that’s the way the world moves us now’.

Inês Carvalho